Legal aid and civil justice

Effective access to the courts is being threatened.

Yesterday's written statement of the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke QC MP began well enough. Introducing the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, he said:

Protecting the public from crime, ensuring those who break the law face the consequences, and providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice are fundamental responsibilities of the state towards its citizens.

So there you have it. In respect to both civil and criminal justice, providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice is a fundamental responsibility of the state towards its citizens.

But in respect of civil justice -- where one party takes another to court -- what does that actually mean?

Civil courts have two broadly overlapping functions. They provide a forum for settling disputes and they provide the means by which individuals can rely on their legal rights. Ideally, a civil court should do both: disputes are resolved by a judge determining the respective legal rights of the claimant and defendant.

In practice, however, almost all civil litigation is settled before it gets anywhere close to a judge for final disposal. As a general rule, litigation is settled in favour of the party in the stronger negotiating position: the party with more money, with better access to appropriate legal advice, and with the greater ability to assume the risk of losing.

In this way, the early settlement of civil disputes will usually tend to disadvantage the claimant or defendant that is weaker than the opposing party. It is only if the claimant can get their case before an impartial and independent court that they can hope to take the benefit of their legal rights. Otherwise, civil litigation is reduced to what the stronger party can get away with. Dispute resolution -- even "early dispute resolution" -- is not identical to access to justice. Indeed, it can mean the reverse.

With this in mind, let us see what Clarke also said yesterday in the written statement, specifically about civil justice:

In civil justice, we have a system burdened by spiraling costs, slow court procedures, unnecessary litigation, and too limited an awareness of alternatives to court -- all of which add to a fear of a compensation culture. In particular, our current system of legal aid too often encourages people to bring their problems before the courts, even when they are not the right place to provide good solutions and sometimes for litigation that people paying out of their own pocket would not have pursued.

However, these appear to be weasel words.

Take, for example, "our current system of legal aid too often encourages people to bring their problems before the courts" and replace the word "encourages" with the word "enables". If the reality of the matter is that the current system of legal aid enables weaker parties to have access to justice - and the determination of their legal rights by judges - this cannot be sidestepped easily by mischaracterising this access as "encouragement".

Similarly, take "sometimes for litigation that people paying out of their own pocket would not have pursued" and replace the word "would" with "could". Again, if people cannot pursue litigation but for the system of legal aid, then Clarke is mischaracterising the effect of that system.

So in one written statement, Clarke gives an assurance that he accepts providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice is a fundamental responsibility of the state towards its citizens; and then a few sentences later he undermines that assurance in respect of civil justice by deftly casting aspersions on those who use legal aid so as to gain access to the courts for the determination of their legal rights.

In fact, the assault on the civil legal aid system announced yesterday is horrific and wrong-headed.

Instead of seeking to target civil legal aid on cases which may not otherwise be able to proceed to court, the Ministry of Justice is simply taking whole areas of civil law out of the system altogether.

At a stroke, legal aid will no longer be available for clinical negligence, employment, immigration, and welfare benefits cases. It will also not be available for most private family law cases, debt and housing issues, and education cases.

Just listing these areas of law makes one realise that it will be those less able and less equipped to deal with the stress and sheer expense (and costs risks) of civil litigation. Without civil legal aid, weak parties will simply be at the mercy of the litigation strategy of the stronger party.

For example, in family cases - as the Conservative MP Helen Grant pointed out yesterday in the Commons:

mediation is no panacea and that it can fail badly in family cases where there is an imbalance in power.

And it gets worse. The hope of the Ministry of Justice is that some of those who will no longer have access to civil legal aid will obtain legal help on a "no win no fee" basis, especially in respect of clinical negligence. This means that the claimant's lawyers will, if successful, charge an additional "uplift" on their fees, sometime up to 100 per cent of their actual charges, to the losing party. As the defendant will invariably be some part of the National Health Service, these "savings" will in practice cost the taxpayer twice the amount: it will just be the Department of Health's problem, not the Ministry of Justice's.

Then there is the general effect of their being more claimants and defendants without legal assistance. "Litigants in person" are a considerable drain on any courts resources. What should be one hour applications will tend to last one day, and trials which should take one day will tend to last a week. Accordingly, removing civil legal aid will be a false economy for the civil justice system as a whole.

There is no perfect form of ensuring access to justice for civil litigants without private resources. And the Ministry of Justice is having to make savings thrust upon it by the government as a whole. It cannot be blamed as if this were a policy that it formulated free from budget restraints.

All that said, the cuts to civil justice legal aid make no sense on their own terms and could cost the state more overall.

There is no reason to believe that law firms will be able to provide advice to those who no longer qualify; and those firms that do will seek often to burden the taxpayer by other means, through higher costs.

Individuals without civil legal aid or other access to lawyers will simply not seek to rely on their legal rights, or will be bullied into unfair settlements, or will clog up the already inefficient civil courts. None of these are attractive outcomes.

It may be that our Lord Chancellor sincerely believes providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice is a fundamental responsibility of the state towards its citizens. However, his department's current civil justice aid policy means this "fundamental responsibility" will certainly not be discharged in practice.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising solicitor.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.